'India Pale Ale': Theater Review

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
From left: Purva Bedi, Shazi Raja and Angel Desai in 'India Pale Ale'
The execution doesn't live up to the ambition.
11/18/2018

A close-knit Punjabi community in Wisconsin is shattered by a tragic event in this new play by Jaclyn Backhaus, author of the acclaimed 'Men on Boats.'

By the time the new play by Jaclyn Backhaus reaches its conclusion, you'll know that the divide between cultures can be bridged by peace, love and tolerance. That harmony can be achieved by something as simple as communally eating foods you've never tried before. And that our future can only be assured by growing and learning from one another. You'll know all this because India Pale Ale takes great pains to tell you so in very explicit fashion.  

This new work by the author of the acclaimed Men on Boats arrives with great fanfare, having won the prestigious Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play. The key word there is "promising," because this work world-premiering in a Manhattan Theatre Club production is badly in need of further development.

Set in Wisconsin, the play concerns the members of a close-knit Punjabi community celebrating the upcoming wedding of one family's only son, Iggy (Sathya Sridharan), to his fiancée, Lovi (Lipica Shah). Preparing for the gathering at a langar hall where friends and family are treated to a vegetarian meal are the prospective groom's parents, Deepa (Purva Bedi) and Sunny (Alok Tewari); tradition-minded grandmother Dadi (Sophia Mahmud); and older sister Basminder (Shazi Raja), referred to by everyone as "Boz." Also in attendance are Deepa's cousin Simran (Angel Desai) and Iggy's best friend Vishal (Nik Sadhnani), who also happens to be Boz's ex-boyfriend.

It seems reasonable to mention all the characters because there's very little plot to speak of. The play's central dramatic element revolves around Boz moving away from her family to open a bar in Madison, an hour away. There she makes friends with frequent customer Tim (Nate Miller), a burly, genial beer lover aptly described by the playwright in her script as a "white guy."

He inquires about Boz's heritage, prompting her to give him a lesson about the large Punjabi community in Wisconsin and assure him, "We're as Midwestern as you get." Not long afterwards, a tragic incident (based on a real-life event) changes the lives of everyone concerned, although it's easy to miss since it's related via a brief monologue that has scant dramatic impact.

The play is infused with surreal fantasy sequences involving the family's supposed ancestor Brownbeard, a beer-running pirate. A lengthy prologue features Boz dressed as a pirate and outlining her plans for the future, her language sprinkled with typical pirate expressions like "Yaar!" and "Ahoy!" Later on, there's another, more elaborate scene depicting colorfully costumed pirates dealing with a torrential downpour, one that provides plenty of opportunities for metaphorical declarations about "weathering the storm."

While it features generous doses of traditional Indian music and dancing, the play squanders its admirable multicultural themes with disjointed, scattershot storytelling and authorial self-indulgence. There are some amusing moments, such as Sunny's politic translating of his elderly mother's blunt comments directed toward the engaged couple, and Tim's puppyish reactions to being warmly welcomed by Boz's family when he shows up unexpectedly at the langar hall in the aftermath of the tragedy.

But the relentless quirkiness and didactic speechifying reveal a playwright trying much too hard, and neither director Will Davis' amateurish staging nor the ensemble's uneven performances help matters. India Pale Ale concludes with a lovely (and delicious) offering to the audience, or at least a lucky few of them, but it's not enough to compensate for the otherwise empty feeling this "promising" work leaves.

Venue: City Center Stage I, New York
Cast: Purva Bedi, Angel Desai, Sophia Mahmud, Nate Miller, Shazi Raja, Nik Sadhnani, Lipica Shah, Sathya Sridharan, Alok Tewari
Playwright: Jaclyn Backhaus
Director: Will Davis
Set designer: Neil Patel
Costume designer: Arnulfo Maldonado
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Music and sound designer: Elisheba Ittoop
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club